- The gingham awaits: Brett Keyser sheds his garments, as Kristie Lang watches in approval.
Noted philosopher Shirley Temple once advised Depression-era moviegoers: "You gotta eat your spinach, baby!" Attending one of producer-director Raymond Bobgan's cerebral performance pieces more than fills the bill. It's loaded with thought-provoking elements that are supposed to be good for theater audiences.
Bobgan's company, Wishhounds, used to be known as Theatre Labyrinth, yet a cactus by any other name would be just as prickly. Its deep-dish endeavors have grown in such self-importance that they would seem more appropriate in Latin.
His productions, which used to have a tenuous grasp on storytelling, have grown progressively more obtuse. Besides being hard to follow, his latest, The Hidden Twin: An American Romance, is steeped in the humorless solemnity that one associates with religious rituals.
To gather us into the company's bid for edification of our souls, we are led like Canterbury pilgrims to the gymnasium of Plymouth Congregational Church, where the windows have been sealed off in black tape. The audience is seated in no-nonsense vintage folding chairs placed in a perfect square configuration with the action in the center; thus, if anyone loses consciousness, opens a crinkly candy, or belches, he will be exposed to public mortification.
The merriment commences with a coterie of high-strung performers set in what seems to be a run-down asylum. Like modern dancers, the actors are all bone, sinew, and pure intensity. They appear to be dressed for the annual lunatic ball. One is a '20s Bohemian, another a pioneer woman; there is a frazzled schoolmarm and a bushy male in a ringmaster costume. In the air is a feeling of discord; no one speaks directly to the others -- they all, instead, make pronouncements: "Memory is a fragile thing . . . Never take candy from strangers . . ." Some sing "Baa Baa Black Sheep" while others, in counterpoint, sing "The Alphabet Song." Apparently, everyone is in need of a Valium.
In comes a young swanlike girl, all in '50s black, looking like Audrey Hepburn's bookish intellectual in Funny Face. She carries a weather-beaten tome. This sends the rest of the company into what seems to be a series of fits and seizures that are supposed to represent time travel. Among the more bizarre encounters, the sole male in the cast is stripped and put into a gingham bonnet and Becky Thatcher dress. He joins arms with his tormentors, and they prance about the stage singing in falsetto, "I lost my son to the sea."
According to Wishhounds' official synopsis, the convoluted plot concerns a young historian and an antiquarian cult whose ritual reenactments threaten to shatter her conception of America's beginnings. However, this audience member couldn't tell you what actually took place on that stage. Trying to link the bizarre machinations with the plot notes makes as much sense as equating one of Jerry Lewis's hyperactive adolescent routines to the plot of The Brothers Karamazov.
Anyone who would venture to a Wishhounds show is most likely a friend of the company or someone with serious cultural aspirations, so a tossed tomato or a rude catcall would be unlikely. Those who are good-natured neophytes will classify the evening's obfuscations with the last hour of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the obscure films of Michelangelo Antonioni, or the later works of James Joyce, as something beyond their comprehension and thus beneficial to their intellect and self-esteem. Others, who recall the prattling of their theater professors, will find comfort in dredging up vague recollections of Jerzy Grotowski's aesthetic theory of performance in Towards a Pure Theater or dimly recall French theoretician Anton Artaud's claims that art is an experience that goes far beyond human understanding. Fanciers of these intellectuals may take satisfaction in Bobgan's freeze-dried dramatizations of their theories.
Those dinosaurs who cling to some form of coherence will note the lack of humanity and humor in the evening's arid 70 minutes. These are the ones most likely to flee with a migraine, seeking a drink or a revival of a silly but human divertissement, such as Under the Yum-Yum Tree.
Like the Hebrew slaves who toiled under Pharaoh, the company members strain every taut muscle to construct this theatrical monolith to their director's glory. Yet, like their accursed predecessors, they are reduced to anonymous cogs in a fiercely anti-human endeavor. Still, they deserve recognition, so here are their names: Brett Keyser, Rebecca Spencer, Kristie Lang, Mariah Sage Leeds, and Tracy Broyles. Only Bobgan's wife and muse, Holly Holsinger, has the pathos and ardor to melt her husband's icy control. For years she has played Giulietta Masina to his Frederico Fellini, yet the Italian master never made the mistake of wasting his wife's brilliant talents on the inconsequential type of role that Holsinger takes on, which is some form of symbolic, effulgent mother figure, who occasionally shines her light through The Hidden Twin's dank bog.
There is a positive side to this kind of grueling theatrical experience. Like survivors of a disaster, the audience forms a special bond. We emerge from it stronger and sure that we can get through anything.